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Roberto Cavalli obituary


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As Italian fashion went global in the later 20th century, it diverged into two schools: the sensuous, soft in silhouette and touch, and the boldly sexual, flamboyant to the eye. The first, and lasting, head of the sexy school was Roberto Cavalli, who has died aged 83.

The material bases for both schools were the nation’s specialist textiles and leather firms: for Cavalli, they delivered figured and lamé leathers, garments printed after sewing so that no seams interrupted a design, and many fabrics with his emphatic prints. These featured animal-skin motifs, Renaissance and Baroque brocades, or, natural-world details derived from his digital photographs.

His aesthetic was hectic, blingy, and sold across classes and cultures: those from palazzos could don it ironically, while those for whom it was streetwear appreciated Cavalli’s celebration of blatant heterosexuality.

Victoria Beckham wearing Roberto Cavalli in 2005. Photograph: Toni Anne Barson Archive/WireImage

From the late 1990s, he expanded worldwide through clothes, shoes and accessories for women, men and children to homewares, perfume, a credit card, and cafes – in his native Florence, he bought the exclusive Caffè Giacosa and Cavalli’ed it.

He sailed the Mediterranean in his purple yacht, and was mobbed in his Manhattan store, but his emotional core locale remained Florence. His mother, Marcella, was the daughter of a painter, Giuseppe Rossi; his father, Giorgio Cavalli, a mining engineer, was shot in 1944 with 91 other civilians by German soldiers in reprisal for a partisan attack.

Postwar, Marcella scrambled by as a coal dealer, then as a dressmaker who handpainted her creations. The boy’s childhood was hard – he stuttered – but after much pleading, he studied at Florence’s Istituto d’Arte (1957-60), although never sat his final examination.

Instead, he earned money. His mother’s painted dresses inspired him to widen the idea to a mechanical process. He travelled to study Como’s many high-end textile firms, and began to print ready-to-wear sweaters for Mariuccia Mandelli of Krizia, who shared his fancy for simulated wild-beast pelts, and then for Hermès. Soon he had a studio, employees, a longed-for Ferrari and enough money to impress the banker father of Silvanella Giannoni; Cavalli claimed it was to win her hand he had achieved so much this young. They married in 1964, and had two children, Tommaso and Cristina, before divorcing in 1974.

Cavalli’s breakthrough to his own clientele came in 1969, when he gatecrashed a party for the shoe designer Mario Valentino, and mentioned to him that he could print on leather. He couldn’t, but the next day worked out a technique using supple glove kid, and returned with samples. Cavalli showed his new wares, sewn into garments, at the Paris Salon du Prêt-à-Porter in 1970. People gawped, but did not buy.

What did sell was his next inspiration. At that time, only brutal wear and laundering faded, abraded and distressed denim – the big industry that would become stone- and sand-washing, bleaching and shredding denim had not been invented – and any embellishments were crude. Cavalli ordered a container of dirty worn-out jeans from a US prison, and washed, cut and patchworked the pieces with leather and printed textiles for a collection shown in the Pitti Palace in 1972. The arte povera materials had been collaged with Italian craft skill and an artist’s eye, and appealed to the well-heeled in the last phase of Boho-hippy-rock-chick chic.

A model on the runway during the Roberto Cavalli spring 2000 ready-to-wear collection in Milan. Photograph: Penske Media/Getty Images

Cavalli went retail with his designs through boutiques, opening the first, Limbo, in St Tropez, and built up an international following. As a high-living celebrity, and a divorcee with loud enthusiasm for beautiful women, he was a judge at the 1977 Miss Universe pageant, where he did not vote for Miss Austria, Eva Düringer, 18, to win, as he wanted her for himself. After finishing her education, she followed him to Florence, where they married in 1980; she became his model, business manager, and mother of Robert, Rachele and Daniele. They divorced in 2010.

Cavalli retained close control of the manufacture of his clothes, proud of the skills used, and disapproved of licensing deals and production off-shoring in Italian fashion as it internationalised at the end of the 70s. He resented the 80s fashion preference for what he called “minimalism”, but was more accurately a temporary supremacy for the sensuous school, exemplified by Giorgio Armani’s unstructured tailoring for women, plus a desire to moderate overt sexiness.

The Cavalli label retained clients – rock doesn’t give up on its own – yet he stopped showing his collection, and in 1993 intended to close the factory and beg union help to re-employ its workers.

He was persuaded to a comeback show at Milan Fashion Week, and attributed his triumphant second career afterwards to his inspiration to add Lycra to denim to create stretch jeans. (Not a new idea – Irene Sharaff had denim experimentally woven with Lycra for the dancers’ jeans in West Side Story, 1961.) Cavalli personally distressed a pair, printed a snake entwining a leg, and displayed them on the perfect rear of his favourite model, Naomi Campbell.

During Cavalli’s years of retreat, Gianni Versace had taken over much of the remaining custom for Italian-originated sexiness, but Versace designs, especially his prints, had a mad Roman emperor stridency never seen in the work of Cavalli, whose leopards and tigers were for cuddling and stroking, not gladiatorial combat.

Roberto Cavalli in 2015. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Even before Versace’s death in 1997, Cavalli was in the ascendant again, in demand on red carpets, on stage on Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, and on screen – a giraffe-skin print – on Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City: he opened boutiques and cafes around the world for his sex-is-fun, Latin-culture-orientated, clothes that suited the mood of excess is success. He was the first Italian designer to create a collection for H&M, a sell-out in 2007. His company closed in 2014, but was relaunched a year later, with little input from Cavalli himself.

In 2002, tax police inspected Cavalli’s extravagant house and estate outside Florence, including the purple helicopter he piloted, and charged him with evasion for claiming expenses for the property as work premises rather than a private home. Cavalli was found guilty and sentenced to 14 months jail, but a superior court annulled the verdict.

A son, called Giorgio after his father, was born to his partner, Sandra Nilsson, a model, in 2023. She and his six children survive him.

Roberto Cavalli, designer, born 15 November 1940; died 12 April 2024

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